Prosecutors’ role in deciding how long people stay in prison

A timely new article from CCRC board member Nora V. Demleitner, law professor at Washington and Lee University, considers the central role of prosecutors in determining who goes to jail and prison and how long they stay there.  Demleitner reviews—as a “case study of prosecutorial authority”—prosecutors’ actions to reduce confined populations during the COVID-19 crisis.  While prosecutors’ key role in charging and sentencing at the front end of a criminal case is well-established, in ordinary times their influence in its later stages, including in prison release decisions, is not so obvious.  Professor Demleitner shows how the pandemic “highlights the tools prosecutors have at their disposal and how they can directly impact the size of the criminal justice system.”  This in turn leads her to consider how “prosecutorial thinking” focused on public safety as opposed to public health “increasingly influences other branches of government” even in the midst of a pandemic.

Professor Demleitner’s article, “State Prosecutors at the Center of Mass Imprisonment and Criminal Justice Reform,” will be published in the April 2020 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter.  The abstract is included below:

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Organizations call on Congress to remove record-related barriers to small business relief

A bipartisan group of civil rights, advocacy, and business organizations, including CCRC, are calling on Congress to take immediate action to remove barriers based on arrest or conviction history for small business owners seeking COVID-19 federal relief.  This is an issue we have been covering in depth in recent posts.  This call to action—available in PDF and reprinted below—is issued by the following organizations (with additional sign-ons welcome; contact us here):

American Civil Liberties Union
Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights
Collateral Consequences Resource Center
College & Community Fellowship
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
#cut50
Drug Policy Alliance
FreedomWorks
Georgia Justice Project
Interfaith Action for Human Rights
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana
Justice Action Network
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Main Street Alliance
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Employment Law Project
Out For Justice
Public Interest Law Center
Reproductive Justice Inside
Root & Rebound
Safer Foundation
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Women Against Registry

*Note: the letter was originally issued on April 10 and was last updated on April 17.

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Federal judge certifies class for landmark Florida felony voting trial

The monumental felony voting rights case in Florida moves another step forward, expanding in scope.  On Tuesday, the federal trial judge overseeing the case certified a class of all persons who have served sentences for felony convictions, who would be eligible to vote in Florida but for unpaid court debt.  With the trial scheduled to begin via remote communication on April 27, the decision enables the court to issue a ruling on the merits in time for the November election that would apply to the entire class of several hundred thousand (or more) potential Florida voters.

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The Marshall Project reports on criminal history barriers to small business relief

In the past two weeks we have written at length about the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA)’s “bumpy guidance on criminal history requirements” for small business financial relief during the COVID-19 pandemic (see also “Applying for an SBA loan with a criminal record“).  Today, Eli Hager of The Marshall Project has picked up the story with a new piece that draws on our research and will bring the story to a wider audience.  We hope this will prompt the SBA to revise its policy, or guide Congress toward clearer and fairer standards if it passes a planned new round of small business assistance.

Before the pandemic, the SBA didn’t automatically disqualify people for small business loans based on a past criminal record, and we can’t understand why it would suddenly decide to do so now, when small businesses across the country are struggling to stay afloat.  (Preexisting policy, described here, disqualifies a business if it has a principal who is incarcerated, is under supervision, is facing charges, or lacks “good character.”)  The new SBA policy—which automatically disqualifies even certain people who have completed a diversionary program and were never convicted—seems entirely at odds with the wave of recent state and federal law reforms aimed at encouraging reintegration.

The Marshall Project piece notes that “never in recent U.S. history have so many conservatives and liberals agreed that people with criminal histories deserve a second chance—especially job-creating small-business owners.”  It is no wonder that the SBA “did not respond Tuesday to multiple requests for clarification,” when its new policy is so indefensible.

An excerpt from The Marshall Project piece, “Trump Administration Tells Some Business Owners ‘Do Not Apply’ for Coronavirus Loans,” is included below:

Michelle E. of Scottsdale, Arizona, was relieved when President Trump last month signed into law the sweeping stimulus package intended to keep the U.S. economy afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

Michelle and her husband have owned a small hardwood flooring business for 18 years. She hoped the law’s $350 billion for small-business loans would help them avoid laying off any of their five employees, whom she said are like family. So she got a loan application through her bank.

But as she filled it out, Michelle saw the question: Had any of the business owners pleaded guilty to or been on probation for a criminal offense? Michelle immediately thought of her husband, who is on probation because he took a guilty plea on a theft charge after taking home the scope of someone else’s rifle on a hunting trip, something he says he did accidentally. His name and her last name are being withheld because his criminal case, and the couple’s loan application, are pending.

“Because of that, our employees can’t get help from the United States government?” Michelle said.

It’s a little noticed frustration compared to the logistical problems of the Trump administration’s rollout of the CARES Act. A set of new regulations for implementing the law, issued by the Small Business Administration, prohibits small-business owners with criminal records from accessing the desperately needed loans.

“We have never seen such a sweeping mandatory disqualification based on a criminal record, in any area of the law,” wrote the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan website that tracks how federal, state and local laws affect people with past charges or convictions. The site is run by Margaret Love, who was the U.S. Pardon Attorney during the Clinton administration.

[. . . .]

Critics of the new regulations said the rules waste precious time examining people’s pasts when so many are, with each new day, losing their lives or livelihoods.  One New Jersey pet-supply store owner with a 10-year-old felony conviction put it this way in an email to the Collateral Consequences Resource Center: It is as if, after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, rescuers flying in helicopters asked families stranded on their roofs if they had ever faced a criminal charge.“

And if anyone answered yes,” he wrote, “they would move along to the next house.”

SBA’s bumpy guidance on criminal history requirements for stimulus loans

*UPDATE (5/20/20): New efforts to channel federal relief to small business owners with a record”

*UPDATE (5/6/20):  We have a new article about a purported leak of the SBA’s internal guidance for denying disaster loan (EIDL) relief based on a record.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) oversees an array of government-backed loans that are key resources for small businesses fighting to survive during this pandemic.  The recently-enacted stimulus bill authorized more than $300 billion in new SBA loans, many of which are eligible for forgiveness.  We published a post about this on March 27: “Applying for an SBA loan with a criminal record.”  But in the past week, the SBA has issued confusing and frequently changing guidance regarding stimulus loan eligibility for people with a criminal record, a group that includes as many as one in three adults.  In the last week, the SBA has issued criminal history guidance for the Paycheck Protection Program on three separate occasions, each time with more restrictive eligibility rules, and it is not clear when guidance will be finalized.

The most recent guidance, issued just today, disqualifies from financial assistance a business with: 1) an owner of 20% or more of the equity who is currently subject to criminal charges, incarceration, probation, or parole; or 2) “any owner” who has, in the last five years, been convicted of any felony, or pled guilty or nolo contendere to felony charges, or been placed on pretrial diversion or any form of parole or probation, including probation before judgement, based on felony charges.

These developments are troubling given the urgent need for relief and the considerable barriers that people with records already face in the economy even in the best of times.  In this post we discuss the past week’s developments on this issue.  We also provide information about COVID-19 disaster loans.

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11th Circuit declines to rehear decision upholding felony voting rights

Yesterday, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied Florida’s petition to rehear en banc a decision from a three-judge panel, which held on Feb. 19 that Florida may not deny the vote to people with felony convictions who have otherwise served their sentences, but may have outstanding court debt that they are unable to pay.

The panel decision concerns Florida’s 2018 ballot initiative Amendment 4, which restored the vote to state residents with felony convictions who have completed the terms of their sentence (murder and sex offense convictions are excluded).  The Florida Supreme Court held earlier this year that this required payment of fines, fees, and restitution.  The Eleventh Circuit panel, affirming a district court preliminary injunction, not only held that Florida may not deny the vote to those who can demonstrate that they are genuinely unable to pay outstanding court debt, but it also called into question the very requirement that legal financial obligations must be satisfied in order to regain the vote.  Our full discussion of that decision is included below.

Absent intervention by the Supreme Court, Florida will be now be required to 1) implement the lower court’s preliminary injunction (which affected only the 17 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit); and 2) return to the district court for further litigation to address the rights of all other similarly situated Floridians, in accordance with the seeming broader directive of the appeals court.

Yesterday’s decision sends a strong signal to the states that currently impose similar financial barriers to restoring the franchise to those who have otherwise served their sentences.  But it also suggests that states should reconsider the many other troublesome barriers that governments impose on people who have otherwise served their sentences and are looking to fully participate in society, but still carry outstanding court debt.  In this vein, we have recently written about the denial of small business loans and ineligibility for expungement of non-conviction records because of outstanding fines and fees.

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Applying for an SBA loan with a criminal record

*UPDATE (5/20/20):  “New efforts to channel federal relief to small business owners with a record”

*UPDATE (4/27/20):  We have now collected a range of resources relating to this issue, including articles, letters, and official documents in one place.

*UPDATE (4/3/20): As we discuss in depth in our new post, the SBA has released a new set of criminal history standards for the “Paycheck Protection Program” (different than those previously published and covered in our 4/1/20 update below).  First, the SBA has posted an Interim Final Rule for this program on its website, which states (p. 7):

You are ineligible for a PPP loan if, for example:

i. You are engaged in any activity that is illegal under federal, state, or local law …. iii. An owner of 20 percent or more of the equity of the applicant is incarcerated, on probation, on parole; presently subject to an indictment, criminal information, arraignment, or other means by which formal criminal charges are brought in any jurisdiction; or has been convicted of a felony within the last five years;

The SBA also has published a new application form, effective April 3, 2020, with more restrictive criminal history standards than those published in the Interim Final Rule.  The form asks two questions regarding criminal history; a “Yes” answer to either question is disqualifying:

  • Is the Applicant (if an individual) or any individual owning 20% or more of the equity of the Applicant subject to an indictment, criminal information, arraignment, or other means by which formal criminal charges are brought in any jurisdiction, or presently incarcerated, or on probation or parole?
  • Within the last 5 years, for any felony, has the Applicant (if an individual) or any owner of the Applicant 1) been convicted; 2) pleaded guilty; 3) pleaded nolo contendere; 4) been placed on pretrial diversion; or 5) been placed on any form of parole or probation (including probation before judgment)?

*Update (4/1/20): SBA has released a sample form, effective March 31, 2020, for stimulus 7(a) loans, now called the “Paycheck Protection Program.”  The form asks two questions regarding criminal history, to be answered by owners with greater than 20% ownership stakes, and a “Yes” answer to either question is disqualifying:

  • Are you presently subject to an indictment, criminal information, arraignment, or other means by which formal criminal charges are brought in any jurisdiction, or presently incarcerated, on probation or parole?
  • Within the last 7 years, for any felony or misdemeanor for a crime against a minor, have you: 1) been convicted; 2) pleaded guilty; 3) pleaded nolo contendere; 4) been placed on pretrial diversion; or 5) been placed on any form of parole or probation (including probation before judgment)?

Loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) are a key resource for small businesses fighting to survive during this pandemic.  SBA loans are generally loans provided by private lenders and guaranteed by the federal government.  The $2+ trillion stimulus package (the CARES Act) signed into law today, includes more than $300 billion in funding for new SBA loans called the “Paycheck Protection Program,” some of which are eligible for forgiveness.

These loans are to be provided under SBA’s primary loan program, the 7(a) loan program, but they increase eligibility for 7(a) loans, extend their allowable uses, and allow for loan forgiveness, among other provisions.  (See H.R. 748, sec. 1102; 15 U.S.C. 636(a)).  Notably, a Paycheck Protection Loan may be used—in addition to already-allowable uses under 7(a)—for payroll support (including paid sick, medical, or family leave, and group health care benefit costs during leave), employee salaries, mortgage payments, rent, utilities, and any other debt incurred before February 15, 2020.  See H.R. 748, sec. 1102.  Further, for all 7(a) loans made between February 15, 2020 and June 30, 2020, loaned funds would be eligible for forgiveness if used for payroll costs (with a couple of exceptions), and certain other expenses to maintain “payroll continuity” during a four-month period.  A business must submit certain documents to apply for forgiveness, and the forgiveness amount is reduced if the number of employees or their compensation has been reduced.  Se H.R. 748, sec. 1106.

In this post, we explore considerations for people with a criminal record who wish to apply for a 7(a) small business loan, including the “Paycheck Protection Program” loans that will be funded through the CARES Act.  We also discuss disaster loans for small businesses in areas severely impacted by the Coronavirus (COVID-19), which the SBA is already making available.

After reviewing existing SBA loan eligibility rules and vetting policies for 7(a) applicants, we have questions about the extent to which these new loans will be available to people with a criminal record.  Generally, the SBA excludes any business with a principal who is on probation, parole, or similar form of supervision; or who is currently facing any charges.  And while a closed criminal case is not automatically disqualifying, SBA requires that every 7(a) applicant’s principals be “of good character,” and conducts a character evaluation that for people with a felony conviction, certain misdemeanor convictions, or a recent case, requires a full FBI background check before loan funds may be approved.  This evaluation specifically requires disclosure of expunged convictions and certain non-conviction records.  Moreover, if a person has not completely satisfied a sentence “and other conditions of the court,” they are ineligible for a loan.  Certain broad language in the CARES Act suggests that the SBA might not impose eligibility requirements that would apply to 7(a) loans in normal times, including ineligibility due to an open criminal matter or lack of “good character.”  We hope that would be the case, given the urgent need for relief and the considerable barriers that people with records already face in the economy even in the best of times.  We will look for guidance from the SBA as to how it will interpret this language.  [See the updates at the top of this post.]

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Will restrictions on banking jobs be relaxed for people with a record?

More than two dozen organizations dedicated to improving employment opportunities for people with a criminal record have written to the FDIC urging that it give regulated financial institutions greater latitude to hire qualified people without having to ask the FDIC’s permission.  The occasion is the FDIC’s proposal to reduce to a formal rule its longstanding policy on employment of convicted individuals by banks, a proposal that suggests the FDIC may be open to giving banks more hiring autonomy by relaxing several controversial provisions.  For 20 years, the FDIC has kept a tight grip on banks, requiring them to obtain a waiver before they may hire anyone with a record even in an entry-level non-professional position.  In operation, this policy has been an effective bar to bank employment for most people with a conviction record (and even for some who have never been convicted).

The letter, organized by the National Employment Law Project and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, points out that FDIC’s exclusionary policy is not required by its enabling statute, and urges the agency to bring its policy on hiring waivers into line with national efforts to further reintegration, in several different ways, some of which are discussed below.  The letter cites the bipartisan federal Fair Chance Act and corresponding reforms in states across the country (as reported by CCRC), as well as many letters from bank industry leaders urging the FDIC to relax its rigid policy that has frustrated efforts to diversify the financial sector’s work force.

The comment below provides some background for the FDIC’s proposal, and comments on where some relaxation of its present policy is likely.  It concludes with a note about the generally confusing and inconsistent treatment of state relief mechanisms like expungement and pardon in federal laws and regulations, suggesting that this is an area sorely in need of further study and proposals for reform.

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COVID-19: State-by-state resources on how to use the pardon power

At this time of pandemic, we have been following the discussions of how jail, prison, and immigration detention conditions are highly concerning, including the very useful collection of links provided by Professor Doug Berman, the demands published by advocacy organizations, and the collection of policy responses by the Prison Policy Initiative.  We agree that every available legal mechanism must be enlisted to secure the release of prisoners and detainees who pose little or no threat to public safety, and whose health and safety are themselves severely threatened by their enforced captivity.  This includes the great constitutional powers given to governors and pardon boards.  We therefore commend our newly revised pardon resources to advocates and policy makers to support their advocacy and action.

While our pardon-related research focuses primarily on how the power is used to restore rights and status to those who are no longer in prison, much of our information about how the pardon process is structured and operates is relevant to how the power might be used (or is already being used) to commute prison sentences during the pandemic.  Our revised pardon resources are part of a major revision of the CCRC Restoration of Rights Project, not only to make sure its information is current in light of the many recent changes in the law, but also reorganizing and revising its resources for clarity and easier access.  In the process, we have updated and revamped our state-by-state material on how the pardon process operates in each jurisdiction, noting that the process has become more regular and productive in a few states in the past several years.

Our 50-state pardon comparison is organized into four sections:

  • Section 1 provides a chart comparing pardon policy and practice across jurisdictions.
  • Section 2 lists jurisdictions by frequency and regularity of their pardon grants.
  • Section 3 sorts jurisdictions by how the administration of the power is structured.
  • Section 4 provides state-by-state summaries of pardon policy and practice, with links to more detailed analysis and legal citations.

We hope this information will be helpful to advocates across the country as we work to keep all people safe and healthy, including those in our prisons and jails.

Legalizing marijuana and expunging records across the country

As the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana has now reached a majority of the states, the expungement of criminal records has finally attained a prominent role in the marijuana reform agenda.  Laws to facilitate marijuana expungement and other forms of record relief, such as sealing and set-aside, have now been enacted in more than a dozen states.  Most of these laws cover only very minor offenses involving small amounts of marijuana, and require individuals to file petitions in court to obtain relief.  But a handful of states have authorized streamlined record reforms that will do away with petition requirements and cover more offenses.  In the 2020 presidential race, Democratic candidates have called for wide-ranging and automatic relief for marijuana records.

Given these important developments that we expect will continue in the present legislative season, we have put together a chart providing a 50-state snapshot of:

(1) laws legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana;

(2) laws that specifically provide relief for past marijuana arrests and convictions, including but not limited to conduct that has been legalized or decriminalized; and

(3) pardon programs specific to marijuana offenses.

We hope this tool will help people assess the current state of marijuana reform and work to develop more expansive, accessible, and effective record relief.

As of this writing, 26 states, D.C., and one territory have legalized or decriminalized marijuana to some degree.  Eleven states and D.C. have done both.  Seventeen states and D.C. have enacted expungement, sealing, or set-aside laws specifically for marijuana, or targeted more generally to decriminalized or legalized conduct.  Four states have pardon programs for marijuana offenses.  Our 50-state chart documenting these laws is available here.  We will update this chart to cover new legislative developments as they occur.  For example, just this week both chambers of the Virginia legislature passed a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and limit access to records of such offenses.

This comment describes some of the history of marijuana decriminalization, legalization, and expungement reforms, recent trends, and the current state of the law in this area.  It attempts to provide evidence for what Professor Douglas A. Berman recently described as the “linking and leveraging” of the marijuana reform and expungement movements.

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